Art and Coffee: Hokusai Edition

After a strong start last month, Art and Coffee continued last Friday as our curator Bridget gave a fascinating talk on two Hokusai pieces, Mt. Fuji in Clear Weather and Eagle in a Snowstorm, both of which are currently on display in 40 Years of Building the Pacific Asia Museum Collection in the “Beauty of Nature” section. Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was a prolific artist of painting and woodblock prints, specifically ukiyo-e, during Japan’s Edo period.

Hokusai’s career began with early exposure to both the publishing industry and printmaking. As a young man he was a book merchant for a time, and also apprenticed a printmaker at a studio. At various points in his long career, Hokusai signed his name differently referring to how he saw himself within the artistic community. As a young artist, he used his master teacher’s name incorporated into his own. By the end of his career, his signature translated to “Old Man Mad with Painting.” Indeed, the quote included in the Eagle in a Snowstorm label states “…nothing I did before the age of 70 was worthy of attention…if I keep trying…at 130 or 140 or more, I will have reached a stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive.”

Mt. Fuji in Clear Weather is part of Hokusai’s most famous collection of works, Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji (which actually grew larger than thirty-six over time, and would later be followed by One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji). This collection captures the landmark peak from several angles and contexts. The entire composition is done in a single line, and the detail is done through just a few color fields, even using the character of the wood blocks themselves. “You can actually see the grain of the cherry block,” Bridget said. “Also, you can see how at the base, it looks like someone dragged something through the ink. That’s a gradation effect called bokashi– it takes a high level of technical skill to do this.”

Eagle in a Snowstorm, part of the great Harari collection, is one of the standout works in the whole exhibition. The eagle braces against a fierce wind, with visible tension in his claws gripping the stone. “You can actually see how the wind exposed the bird’s skin under the feathers,” said Bridget. “I think that’s part of the charm of this composition…he’s also worked a fine architecture of the feathers. The structured tail feathers are different from the downy feathers we see on the breast and wing.” Hokusai created a wet snow effect surrounding the bird by flinging the paint-coated brush at the canvas to get a spatter pattern, further heightening the bleak environment against which the eagle struggles.

These two pieces are best appreciated in person, where you can examine the energy and concentration in each stroke. Because they are so sensitive to light, we don’t get to display them as often as we’d like– come visit them while you can!~CM

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849). Mt. Fuji in Clear Weather. Japan, Edo Period (1603–1868); c. 1830, Woodblock print on paper. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Everett A. Palmer Jr.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) Eagle in a Snowstorm. Japan, Edo Period (1603–1868); 1848. Color and gofun on paper,  Signed: ‘Gakyorojin Manji yowai Hachijuhassai’; Seal: ‘Hakyu’. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. George A. Brumder with Funds for Conservation Provided by Dr. Cathleen A. Godzik in Memory of Her Father.


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